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The Rockets’ Quiet Offseason Could Cost Them in West Standings

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

Before the Hinkie 76ers, the most experimental and divisive team in the NBA were the Rockets. They considered players assets and weren’t afraid to make trades. They bought and developed second-round picks when most teams weren’t giving them much value. They were always angling for the next available star. As recently as last season, the front office built a bench out of thin air. They make things happen.

It’s become expected for Houston to make bold moves, which is why it was so surprising to see Daryl Morey basically sit out the offseason.

The Rockets re-signed Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley, drafted Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell at their designated slots and added some bench scoring by inking Marcus Thornton. Josh Smith and Jason Terry look to be on their way out. For the most part, Houston’s rotation will look very similar to what it was last season.

In fairness, the Rockets did make the conference finals in 2014-15 despite injuries to two starters. They destroyed the Mavericks in Round 1 and came down from behind to beat the Clippers before being outclassed by the Warriors. They were a 56-win team despite Dwight Howard playing 41 out of 82 regular season games. There’s a very good case to be made that staying put and opting for continuity was the right decision. It’s just so uncharacteristic, however, that it feels strange.

LaMarcus Aldridge signaled he wanted to leave Portland and return to Texas, yet the Rockets didn’t really throw their hat in the ring for his services. They didn’t even try to upgrade at point guard or power forward despite a few interesting fits — namely Goran Dragic and Paul Millsap — hitting the market. Creating space for those signings wouldn’t have been easy and Houston might not have been on those players’ lists, but the Rockets have always found ways to get in the conversation in the past. This time they seemed content to stay put.

Unfortunately, this is the wrong time to get complacent. The Warriors are bringing every rotation player back while the Spurs landed Aldridge and retained most of their core. The Clippers, momentarily thought of as dead, are now stronger after DeAndre Jordan‘s change of heart. The Thunder should be healthy next season and deeper than ever. Even the Grizzlies continue to be a legitimate threat to come out of the West.

It’s hard to say if those teams are better than a healthy Rockets squad, but the Warriors easily won their series last postseason and it took an epic collapse by Los Angeles for the Rockets to reach the conference finals. Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas weren’t available, but their replacements did surprisingly well, considering the circumstances. Harden had an MVP-caliber season. This group has upside but not likely enough to emerge as the favorite in the West with Marc Gasol back.

It’s possible the Rockets are just vying their time. They have tradable assets that could allow them to make a competitive offer if a player they really want becomes available. It’s also possible that after seemingly endless shuffling, the front office is happy with the core in place. They have two stars, a solid supporting cast with plenty of depth and a coach that’s been better at his job than most expected. Giving this group a chance to prove its worth is far from a bad decision, especially on the eve of a huge salary cap jump that’ll give Houston flexibility next season.

Motiejunas could continue to improve while Terrence Jones becomes more consistent. Clint Capela should be able to spell Howard for stretches, keeping him fresh. Who knows how good Dekker and Harrell will be in their rookie season? If a few things break right, Houston could actually reach its full potential next year. The question is, will their improvement be enough to keep them among the West elite after an offseason in which other teams have made big additions or retained their superior cores?

The fact that the Rockets under Morey have been so active in the past, more than anything else, might be what’s creating anxiety about the on-court outlook. The plan, as expressed time and time again, was to get a third star and Houston abandoned it this offseason. It’s possible the blueprint remains the same and Morey didn’t consider anyone available a good fit or could be saving his cap room for next offseason. Second guessing the judgment of such a smart, ambitious front office is always dangerous.

Yet it’s also possible the unexpected success the Rockets had last season after missing out on Chris Bosh and losing Chandler Parsons convinced everyone involved that the roster is better than it actually is. Houston was a Spurs’ win in the last game of the season away from a lower seed, and if not for an unlikely scoring explosion by Brewer and Smith, they would’ve lost to the Clippers. Their margin of error was razor thin and they haven’t done much to increase it.

Positive results can point to lasting success or be product of circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. For the Rockets’ sake, let’s hope their 2014-15 season is an example of the former.

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